Saturday, June 7, 2014

My First Indy 500

[I wrote the essay below as my entry into a contest that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is running. If you read this before August 30, 2014, I would encourage you to go directly to the speedway’s website where you can read and cast your vote (with the small red button at the top) to help me win this contest. There are a few different pictures on this page that aren't on the contest entry, so feel free to check out both pages. Thanks in advance for your support!]

My earliest Indy 500 memories date back to 1963, when a driver with an odd first name—Parnelli Jones—caught my attention, even though I wasn’t even in school yet. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, our family tradition on Memorial Day in West Virginia was to wash our vehicles, and then wax them in the shade of the big tree in the side yard, all while listening to the race on a local AM radio station. In more recent years, watching the Indy 500 on television was my “must see TV.” The radio and TV coverage was always supplemented by Chris Economaki and his reporters in our weekly copy of National Speed Sport News.

Parnelli's winning car from 1963.

I can even remember sneaking a small transistor radio with an earphone into my grade school so I could listen to the 1967 Indy 500 that had been delayed by rain. I was fascinated by the STP Turbine, which was being driven by Parnelli Jones. Even though I was in the classroom, I had to hear if he would win the race in that exotic car of the future. I was dismayed when the car broke just a few laps from the finish.

Parnelli's STP Turbine that nearly won in 1967. It is displayed in the museum in a garage from that era.

However, despite this long history of interest in the Indy 500, for various reasons I had never attended one. Yes, I had made a point to stay at the old Speedway Motel and visit the museum in 1985 when I was passing through Indianapolis, but it was in March—not May. I had been fortunate to see a couple of other IndyCar races at different tracks over the years, but never “the big one.”

This year, I decided the time was right to cross the Indy 500 off my “bucket list.” I started researching on-line about attending. Originally I thought I might only be able to get over to Indianapolis for Saturday and Sunday, so I decided to get a tent camping permit and just sleep in my car (I assumed hotels would be costly and/or booked, plus that guaranteed me a parking spot close to the speedway). I called the IMS ticket office and spoke with a helpful woman named Carol, who was able to get me a fantastic seat in Box B, under the roof, where the track begins to curve into Turn One (along with the two-day camping permit and a ticket to Legends Day). I was very excited about making this purchase but kept my fingers crossed that there would not be a rainout.

As the Memorial Day weekend drew closer, it became apparent that my work situation would allow me to take some additional time off. I was even lucky enough to get a decent motel room at the last minute for Thursday and Friday nights. So I left work at lunch on Thursday, bound for a big Indianapolis weekend. I drove into the Indiana State Fairgrounds in time to watch the Hoosier Hundred on the one-mile dirt track. It turned out to be a fun race at a classic track, and a great way to kick off my Indy weekend.

This car was driven in the Hoosier Hundred by Jarrett Andretti (the next big Andretti driver?). His dad, former driver John Andretti, is in the black shirt leaning against the door to the trailer.

On Friday, I joined the masses trying to get into the free parking on Carb Day in the infield (my first taste of just how “big” the crowds are). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it through the tunnel and get parked in time to see the vintage cars take their laps, but I could hear them—plus I knew I’d get a second chance on Legends Day. I had a blast on Carb Day, strolling through the vintage pits behind the museum, gazing from the stands to watch the last IndyCar practice, walking through the FanZone area, eating a smoked turkey leg, sitting on a grassy knoll on the backstretch for the amazingly close Indy Lights race, observing part of the pit crew competition, roaming through the garage area (it was open to the public that afternoon), and watching the truck races up in the fourth turn. I had a terrific time all day long at IMS, but then I topped it off by driving over to the Indianapolis Speedrome to watch a regional midget race plus my first Figure-8 races (those guys are crazy!).

Figure-8 racing at the Speedrome.

On Saturday morning, I arrived early to my designated camping area and was escorted to my assigned spot. After parking, I headed over to the speedway, showed my ticket at the gate, and then walked through a tunnel underneath the frontstretch. I spent the day roaming the grounds again, attended the “drivers meeting,” and got some great pictures of the vintage cars on the racetrack. It was amazing to actually witness so many cars that I had enjoyed seeing pictures of over the years actually running on the track—especially to see (and hear) those STP turbines!

One of the 1968 STP Turbines whooshing by on the track.

That afternoon I revisited the museum for the first time since 1985, and especially loved the special exhibition on turbine cars. I also discovered the photography shop hidden away on the second floor. Before leaving the track, I also enjoyed the interview session with Mario Andretti in the plaza. Because I formerly worked for NASA, I liked the part where astronaut Kevin Ford gave Mario the toy version of his 1969 winning car that he had taken with him in space.

Mario's only Indy 500 victory was in this car back in 1969.

I left the track so that I could visit my fourth different racetrack within 48 hours (!), by driving to Lucas Oil Raceway for the “Night before the 500” races. ESPN used to broadcast races from this track, which helped launch the careers of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and others. Plus, it was good to see the adjoining dragstrip where the big NHRA races are held each Labor Day.

I got back to my campsite late that evening, set up my car for sleeping, and had a restful night—until the sound of helicopters (probably providing early traffic reports) woke me up at dawn. I got my car reconfigured and then got organized with everything (ticket, official souvenir program, binoculars, that handy “spotters guide” which provides a quick reference to the paint scheme for each car, seat cushion, etc.) I was taking into the racetrack for the big day.

I took a circuitous route from my campsite, so that I could get a taste of the pre-race atmosphere as the hordes descended on the racetrack. One group of jokers had set up a water hose with a shower head on an elevated pole, offering “FREE SHOWERS”—except the fine print indicated it was only offered to women. Eventually, I entered through the gate and discovered that I didn’t need to take the tunnel under the track—they had a gate open which allowed folks to cross the racetrack itself. I felt like I was on hallowed ground as I lingered, soaking up as much of that unique visual perspective as I could. In a few hours, the race cars would be zooming across this same pavement!

Standing on the track on the morning of the race looking up towards the start/finish line.

I wandered around the garage and Gasoline Alley areas, watching as crews were making their last minute preparations. I walked back through the plaza area and then towards the fan zone, but noticed an area that I had not visited the previous two days. There was a lane behind the plaza where all the team haulers were parked, and on this day it wasn’t fenced off, so I strolled through, enjoying the paint jobs on these big trailers.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a speeding golf cart make a turn to cut right in front of me. To my surprise, just a few feet away from me was none other than the legendary A.J. Foyt himself, who was making a run back to the team hauler for something. I didn’t say anything to him (since he seemed to be in a hurry), but it was a neat moment for me to literally “cross paths” with him on race day. He might not be driving a race car anymore, but he sure knows how to whip around in a golf cart!

Eventually I headed back to my seat to get ready for the big day. There is so much that goes on at Indy that one never sees on TV. The amount of logistical planning and organizational skills it takes to put on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is phenomenal. Here are just a few of my personal highlights from the pre-race ceremonies:

· Purdue University marching band’s “World’s Largest Drum.”
· Colts QB Andrew Luck’s arrival by helicopter to deliver the green flag. [His dad played at WVU when I was a student there, and now serves as the WVU Athletic Director, so most West Virginians are also big Andrew Luck fans.]
· The parade of former race winners, as well as a few selected vintage cars from the museum.
· All three of the 1968 wedge STP turbines, lined up for a three-abreast parade lap.
· Jim Nabors was in the back of one of the pace cars, and our area of the grandstands was where it pulled out onto the track. Before the track announcer had introduced him, folks sitting in our section recognized him and started cheering. He was overwhelmed with this spontaneous outpouring of affection.
· Listening to Florence “Mrs. Brady” Henderson sing “God Bless America.”
· Seeing the school kids unfurl the huge Star Spangled Banner inside Turn One.
· Fortunately, the roof that kept the sun off me did not prevent me from witnessing the flyover by the military jets, which is always exciting to me.
· Hearing “Back Home Again in Indiana” sung by “Gomer Pyle” for the final time made me misty eyed. Aside from the state song of my native West Virginia, “Back Home Again in Indiana” is the only other state song that I know—which is the result of hearing it once each year for the past 50 years or so.
· Seeing the thousands of multi-colored balloons take off from the far side of the track. Most events quit releasing balloons because of environmental concerns (which I understand), but I enjoyed seeing it one more time.
· Watching the traditional “Start Your Engines” command on the videoboard. It was cool that Jim Nabors got to do it with Mrs. George this time.

The view from my seat of Turn 1 and the unfurling of the giant flag.

Soon, it was time for the race to start—and what a race it was! It was 3/4 complete before a caution flag came out. I enjoyed my seat in the shade—I could see nearly all the way up the frontstretch, all of turn one as well as the short chute, and the lower end of pit road. Much of the passing occurred near my area, and I had a close look at the unfortunate incident that took out pole sitter (and apparent hometown favorite) Ed Carpenter.

My view of the action in the pits.

I had a wonderful time at my first Indy 500! I discovered what the phrase “Hoosier hospitality” means. I also got lucky with fantastic weather the whole weekend. It was nice to finally accomplish this “bucket list” event.

Some folks say “Why bother going to the race when you can see it better on TV?” Well, the tradition and pageantry of this race makes it very special, beyond any other racing event. Plus, there are lots of battles that take place further back in the pack that you never get to see on TV, because of their incessant focus on the leaders. I also enjoy the “art” of auto racing, and I pick out cars I like based on their paint jobs—watching on TV doesn’t give you the ability to really see the variety of colors and designs, and then focus on your favorite ones. While it is true that you can’t see the whole track, the videoboards help to show you what you miss. Finally, to enhance my experience I brought a radio so that I could listen to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”—just like I did as a kid.

I should never have waited five decades to see it in person!

The tail of a beautiful front-engine roadster in the vintage pits..

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